It is 260 steps up from the entrance of the massive St. Isaac's Cathedral in the heart of St. Petersburg to the colonnade that encircles the base of the dome. I climbed slowly and counted. It was winter, and the stone staircase was slick with ice, ending at a high snow-coated corner of the great Russian Orthodox church.
There, horrified, I realized that to reach the colonnade, I had to cross a metal gangplank, about 40 feet long, slung over the cathedral's sloping roof from where I stood to the dome. I steeled myself and started walking. Halfway up, I felt a blast of cold wind pluck at the gangplank like pizzicato on a violin string. When I reached the narrow walkway behind the colonnade, I clutched the slender handrail and tried to get calm. Finally, I looked out and claimed the prize for having come to St. Petersburg in January: a 360-degree view of the city--300 years old this year and, in winter, never looking better--its bridges, parks, golden spires and fuming smokestacks in the suburbs writing in white on a baby blue sky.
Fulfilling fantasies is a big part of why I travel and, in this famous Russian city, not just an object but an obsession. There, in the snow, I see myself riding in a sleigh along a canal. My jet black hair is pinned in a diamond tiara and my pale, flawless shoulders draped in white fur. I have waltzed with princes, eaten caviar from crystal, lived in palaces of malachite and alabaster. My name is Anna or Lara or Irina. Doubtless I read too many Russian novels at too tender an age and never stopped seeing them through rose-tinted glass because I still sometimes imagine myself in Anna Karenina's tiara and Dr. Zhivago's sleigh. Though my passport picture shows a middle-aged woman, my dreams reflect a beautiful Russian girl in the perfect world of a snow globe.
I could cite a score of other reasons I came to St. Petersburg last January, beginning with the celebration of the city's 300th anniversary, marked by fireworks, concerts, visits from world leaders and the much-needed restoration of such vaunted sights as the Alexander Column on Palace Square. I could mention the winter season at the ballet and symphony, when there is almost as much to keep a dance and music lover happy as in New York, but with more manageable crowds. I could invoke the Hermitage, surely one of the greatest art museums in the world, or say I wanted to see winter freeze shut Peter the Great's "Window on the West," a shantytown on the marshy delta of the Neva River when the czar founded it in 1703, later one of the most elegant and cosmopolitan capitals in the world.
Or I could tell the truth, that I came to St. Petersburg to realize a dream that any fool could have predicted was bound to melt like a snowflake in my hand.
boris pasternak's "doctor zhivago" is set in Moscow, not St. Petersburg, as are major parts of Leo Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina." Anton Chekhov's "Three Sisters" yearned for Moscow, Moscow, Moscow, which replaced Peter's imperial city to the north as the Russian capital after the abdication of the last czar and the Bolshevik rise to power in 1917. Throughout the 20th century, under the Communists, St. Petersburg went into a long, slow decline. Its opulent Italian Baroque palaces moldered; the art of the czars was sold off, stashed in damp basements, or moved to Moscow; money and power fled. During World War II, an estimated 1 million civilians died in the horrific 900-day German siege. As perhaps the ultimate humiliation, the city once known as the "Venice of the North" was in quotidian fashion renamed Leningrad.
If anything, the fall of the Soviet Union made matters worse, though in 1991 the Russian Parliament reinstated the name Peter the Great gave the city. Economic hardship brought continued deterioration and crime, including Mafia-style shootings of politicians and the robbery of a Finnish diplomat by men in police uniforms in 2001. You couldn't drink the tap water or walk along the sidewalks of the Nevsky Prospect, the city's principal street, without falling into a crack. Though St. Petersburg often appeared on travel magazine lists of places people most wanted to visit, tourism all but evaporated. Those who came here were largely on shore excursions from Baltic Sea cruise ships, viewing the city from hermetically sealed tour buses.
That's how I first visited it about five years ago, when I found St. Petersburg depressing for its faded look, empty streets and hucksters of Soviet-era war medals. But dreams die hard--Peter's, mine and, it would seem, those of Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin, who was born and raised in St. Petersburg.
Putin clearly has a soft spot for the tenuous, miraculous city in Russia's frozen north. So, as the tercentenary approached, he earmarked $1.5 billion for refurbishments and celebrations and invited the leaders of the European Union, along with President Bush, to see the results. St. Petersburg's 300th birthday party crested at the end of May, when the world's elite turned up. French President Jacques Chirac marveled at the beauty of czarist palaces in the suburbs, restored in time for his visit, while Bush and Putin put a friendly face on their disagreements over the invasion of Iraq. A million and a half people crowded up to the Neva River to see the fireworks, although for many, gunfire in Baghdad drowned out the bang.
I'm glad I came here in January, before the Iraq war and the birthday festivities, never mind that all the city's most vaunted sights were under scaffolding. And never mind that it was winter, when only adolescent dreamers would visit St. Petersburg, a city of 4.8 million that is nearly the same latitude as Anchorage, Alaska. Winter here is a time of short, dull days, frigid temperatures, blizzards and falling icicles that kill several people every year. In Russia, they call it "Gen. Winter" for the way it stopped invasions by Napoleon and Hitler. But if you dress warmly and embrace the cold like a cranky old friend, you will see St. Petersburg at its best: cracks in the Neva River, like calligraphy on white paper; parks, gardens, bridges, heroic statues beautifully blanketed in snow; canals locked in ice; people emerging from office buildings in stylish full-length fur coats. (Ask St. Petersburgers about animal rights and they roll their eyes.)
Winter--real, white Russian winter--is a singular thing, deadly and cozy at the same time. At the end of Pasternak's novel, Dr. Zhivago's posthumous poetry is found, including "Winter Night," which starts: It snowed and snowed, the whole world over; snow swept the world from end to end. A candle burned on the table; a candle burned.
St. Petersburg is the candle. If cities have seasons--Paris spring, New York fall--then winter best becomes St. Petersburg. Visiting Russia is never a lark, no matter the season. Visas and invitation letters are required for foreigners, signs are in Cyrillic, the tap water is still too suspect to drink. (Despite drinking only bottled water, I came home with two nasty stomach bugs that took a 10-day course of antibiotics to treat.) The U.S. State Department says street crime continues to be a danger, and hotel rates are high even in winter. Independent travel--apart from a tour or without a driver and guide--is daunting.
Exeter International, a Florida company that specializes in travel to Eastern Europe and the Russian Federation, arranged my four-day stay in St. Petersburg, with a Russian guide for three days and a car and driver for two of those. Though I generally prefer to be left to my own devices, this seemed wise, because I was traveling alone and don't speak Russian. For once, I didn't feel guilty about choosing an expensive place to stay and a pricey itinerary; the dream I was chasing would never be found in cheap seats or budget hotels.
Constantine Lutoshkin, my young guide, met me at the airport. He opened doors for me, made dinner reservations, carried my camera at times and was ready with dates, statistics, facts in the Hermitage Museum and the Church of the Spilled Blood. One day in the car, we passed a stand selling red caviar blinis. Idly, I said they looked good. So Constantine made sure I got to try one before I left. (They were delicious. Salty, piping hot, perhaps the world's best street food.)
But as accommodating as Constantine was, I never really got to know him. There were off-moments when he revealed that he was about to get married, preferred Feodor Dostoevski to Tolstoy and kept a pet snake. When I introduced political topics, such as the war on terrorism or the invasion of Iraq, he was unwilling to say anything that might offend. Only when I mentioned that I admired Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet leader who introduced glasnost and perestroika just before the collapse of the former Soviet Union, did Constantine's feelings seem to surge. Westerners like Gorbachev, he said; Russians love Putin.
we spent our first day together driving from site to site, beginning, as is appropriate, with the St. Peter and Paul Fortress on the north bank of the Neva, where Peter the Great's city took shape, first in rough wood, then in stone designed in large part by Italian architect Domenico Trezzini. Within the fortress walls are museums, a prison, military parade grounds and a richly gilded cathedral where the floor is lined with the tombs of Romanovs, the family that ruled Russia from 1613 to 1917. Most poignant to a romantic--especially one, like me, who shed a teen-ager's tears all the way through Robert K. Massie's "Nicholas and Alexandra"--are those of the last czar and his czarina, imprisoned and executed in 1918 by the Bolsheviks near the Ural Mountain city of Yekaterinburg. Their remains were moved to the cathedral just five years ago in a gesture that seems to bespeak the way Russians have begun to cautiously re-embrace their imperial past.
On the riverbank, just east of the fortress, we stopped briefly at Peter the Great's simple log cabin, where the czar lived while workers wrested St. Petersburg out of the Neva swamp. It's hard to imagine, but at the beginning, the city was as mean and muddy as a Western mining camp, peopled by serfs, prisoners of war and members of Peter's court who were forced, under protest, to move from Moscow. In 1715, a woman was devoured by wolves in the vicinity of the Menshikov Palace on nearby Vasilevsky Island. There were no bridges over the Neva, which suited Peter, a maritime enthusiast who required St. Petersburgers to cross the many-channeled river exclusively by sailboat; only when several people died doing so did he rescind the order.
Peter, one of history's most fabled rulers, is hard to fathom, even if you spend your days touring the city he created out of nothing and reading Massie's biography of him at night, as I did. Though his education was spotty, the czar was a man of countless enthusiasms, including science, engineering and war. As a princeling in Moscow, he played soldier with Russian troops and live ammunition, and later toured Western Europe incognito, more captivated by Dutch shipyards than the court of the French king. Throughout his life, he also routinely drank himself into stupors and was subject to embarrassing seizures, which only the Lithuanian peasant girl who became his second wife, Catherine I, seemed able to quell.
Ultimately, Peter's city grew up on the south bank of the Neva, around a shipyard now occupied by the magnificent Admiralty building. Its yellow Neoclassical facade, stretching 1,335 feet along the river, bordered by parks and topped by a 218-foot gold spire, dominates the city center. Nearby are all of St. Petersburg's grandest architectural ensembles and main tourist attractions--with such notable exceptions as Peterhof and Tsarskoe Selo, imperial palaces in the suburbs.
Fantastical journey in St. Petersburg
In the frozen winter, a romantic trip to St. Petersburg, complete with palaces, concerts and ballet.
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